Midway through working on The Low Anthem’s new album, Eyeland, Ben Knox Miller says, the band realized the record was unraveling from their initial expectations faster than they were progressing.
Accepting the notion that the band’s fourth album was more about transformation than creation helped give Miller and his Low Anthem co-founder Jeff Prystowsky permission to reach out in directions they never had before, swapping more traditional folk music for an adventurous sound collage (and an accompanying reality-probing storyline) the band calls “multi-dimensional future folk.”
The transformation story of The Low Anthem since 2011’s magnificent Smart Flesh parallels the resurrection story of the Columbus Theatre, a long-shuttered Providence, Rhode Island theater, built in 1926 as a vaudeville and opera house. In both cases, Miller uses terms like metamorphosis to describe how a theater and a band found new definitions and identities when their paths became intertwined.
“We don’t always know what we’re doing, what we’re getting into. We couldn’t have predicted what the last four years would’ve been like in our wildest imagination,” Miller says. “Originally, we’d moved in to do this squatter recording session, but we fell more deeply in love with the place and decided to reopen it. Suddenly we were hosting shows, over 400 in the last three years.”
The magnetic pull of the historic Columbus Theatre, with its “unbelievable acoustics” designed to throw unamplified sound as deeply as possible down the long, narrow hall, led Miller and Prystowsky on a three-fold series of sonic explorations, experimenting with new ways to record their own songs, helping to produce and record more than 30 other bands and presenting a run of shows that helped reinvigorate Providence’s musical community.
“We didn’t go into this as prominent recording engineers. We were learning how to do that at the same time we were realizing how powerful this space is to record in,” Miller says. “All of these projects were a mixed blessing. They were all things we were thrilled to be involved in, but they were distracting us from seeing an end game on the specific recording process of Eyeland.”
Taking time away from Eyeland to sort out the record’s path and ambitions led The Low Anthem to dissolve back to just its founding members, Miller and Prystowsky, who had the freedom to reimagine the band in new combinations, experimenting with new sounds.
“Around the midway point, there was a moment we were reduced to the smallest thing that is still The Low Anthem, which is me and Jeff. There were definitely some moments where we would just look at each other and realize how deep down the rabbit hole we were, ask each other if we still think it’s important,” Miller says. “It would’ve been easy at any moment to abandon this work and move onto the next project. I’ve written loads of music since we started this, but the songs have remained important to us and have remained efficient as the skeleton for whatever musical evolution occurred around them.”
The songs were formed around an event from Miller’s childhood, one that he’s tried several times to write about in story and song. From the age of seven, Miller started making films with his best friend from the neighborhood. In one, they attempted to create the effect of seaweed by running string through the holes in an air hockey table. Unfortunately, the strings caught in the motor overnight and the table exploded, burning the house down.
“For my neighborhood crew, this was a transitional moment between innocence and experience, of realizing the destructive power we had. The certainty of childhood was swept away,” Miller says. “That story became the crux of this narrative. The whole thing is written as a fantastical version of that.”
Miller saw a fit between that story and the question posed by the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi in “The Butterfly Dream,” wondering whether he was a man who dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man.
“In this idea, the narrative of your dreams, the construction of your reality, the ability to shift perspectives and be self-deluded, maybe that the dream is the reality,” Miller says. “The album exists in this nether area of not knowing what’s real, what you’re going to wake up out of.”
The song “In The Air Hockey Fire” deals with that moment specifically, occurring in the moment of trauma, before a new reality is established, in the numbness when children are unable to process what happened. In the aftermath, Miller says the children are “prematurely members of adulthood.”
“That moment of the air hockey fire was a moment of metamorphosis. The kids wake up and have to figure out what is reality, what they can still take them in their next phase of their lives,” he says. “Can we still have the same lives? Much of it is written in the uncertainty of that.”
The Low Anthem had a version of the album, with essentially the same songs, shortly after finishing the touring for Smart Flesh, one that Miller says was quirky and kind of dark, but underdeveloped. As they continued work on Eyeland over the years since that initial attempt, the band faced an embarrassment of riches on terms of direct influences.
“There was this problem of all these musicians coming through who were really inspiring and we’d see a show and all of a sudden had a million ideas to incorporate into the album. When we recorded other bands, every band would come in with a new approach and new ideas. It’s like we were learning faster than we could catch up with,” he says.
In another serendipitous contribution to the album, Miller and Prystowsky visited the Audium theater in San Francisco. The minimalist and experimental composer Stan Shaff presents his works in complete darkness on a system of 176 speakers, combining acoustic and electronic instruments with natural sounds into an immersive auditory collage.
“He integrated the simplest and most familiar sounds of life with this abstract music in a way that when Jeff and I got out, our ideas about recording and composing music were completely transformed,” Miller says. “We realized how much power was in these basic sounds of life we hear every day. There was no longer this hierarchy of musical versus non-musical. We came back from that experience and realized we had to start over with what we were working on. We had to experiment with this idea.”
Over the course of the four years, amidst the work on the theater, The Low Anthem was able to devote about six periods of two months each to intense and undistracted work on Eyeland. However, the lineup shifted over that time, so the finished work brings contributions from departed band members Jocie Adams, Mike Irwin, Tyler Osborne and Andy Davis as well as current Low Anthem musicians Florence Wallis and Bryan Minto.
“When Jeff and I listen, we hear the first recordings we made and hear the players going back. It’s like these bizarre rings on a tree,” he says. “We can identify the earliest and the latest and the various periods in between. It’s a weird way to make a record, but we weren’t trying to make something that sounded weird. The process accumulated on itself exponentially and I’m glad we gave it the time to develop naturally. I don’t have the skill or vision to sit down and imagine a finished work and then go execute it. I always prefer to work in the unknown and wait for something to come out of the ether.”